Día de los Muertos is Taking Over America

Everybody wants a piece of the 2,500 year old Mexican holiday.

By Michael Hardy October 30, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Shutterstock

30th Annual Museo Guadalupe Aztlan Día de los Muertos Celebration
Nov 1 from 10am–2pm
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Día de los Muertos is taking over America. Oliver Stone’s 2012 film Savages, about California pot dealers who run afoul of a Mexican cartel, featured several characters sporting grotesque calavera-style masks. Then, last year, following the final episode of Breaking Bad, an enterprising fan began selling T-shirts online featuring an image of Bryan Cranston’s face in the style of Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), who heavily influenced modern Día de los Muertos iconography. And Disney recently sparked outrage when it attempted to trademark the very phrase “Día de los Muertos,” which was one of the titles under consideration for a forthcoming Pixar film based on the holiday. In response, Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the comic strip La Cucaracha, tweeted: “Disney to trademark Día de los Muertos, also your dead relatives.” (Disney backed down.) 

In Houston, Día de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead—has long been an important annual celebration. Increasingly, however, it’s expanding beyond the Mexican community. Jesus Cantu Medel, the executive director of Houston’s Museo Guadalupe Aztlan, which is organizing its 30th annual celebration at the Evergreen Cemetery on November 1, says some of the Anglicized versions of the holiday make him uncomfortable. “We have had some heated discussions with some art galleries that have portrayed Día de los Muertos in inappropriate ways,” says Medel. “I don’t want to name any particular galleries, but there is a lot of that happening.” 

Día de los Muertos traces its roots back at least 2,500 years, to Meso-American traditions such as the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead, which was celebrated at the beginning of August. When Spain conquered Central America in the 16th century, it attempted to stamp out the tradition. “The Spanish thought the celebration was too dark, too macabre—they couldn’t understand it,” says José Guillermo de los Reyes Heredia, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Houston. “They tried to get rid of it, but they couldn’t.” Instead, the Spanish colonizers blended the indigenous tradition with the Catholic holiday of All Saint’s Day and moved it to the beginning of November.  

So today’s Día de los Muertos is a hybrid, reflecting aspects of both native American and Spanish traditions. According to Heredia, the altars to the dead, the candles, and the marigolds date from pre-Columbian times, while the Spanish influence can be seen in the placing of the deceased person’s favorite foods and drinks on their graves. Although some confuse it with Halloween, which originated in Celtic-speaking countries, Día de los Muertos (which is actually comprised of two days—Día de los Angelitos on November 1, dedicated to dead children, and Día de los Muertos on November 2) is a far more serious affair, a chance to remember the dead and a reminder of our own mortality. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the Pope, or a peasant, or a professor—we’re all going to end up in the cemetery,” Heredia says. “Although we also make fun of the dead, it’s kind of saying that we’re all equal, because we’ll all be ashes at some point.”

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